Is high voter turnout a sign of democracy?
What do the election results tell us about democratic maturity in Turkey? Despite the unfair nature of the campaign period, the opposition has accepted the election results and said vote irregularities are not at the point of changing the outcome. This is the most important sign of a functioning democracy.
Vote irregularities happen in all elections in any democracy and as was underlined in the past by the “vote and beyond,” a civilian organization monitoring elections, some degree of irregularity is natural in a country where more than 51 million votes were cast in more than 180 thousand ballot boxes.
Still, the opposition should not underestimate these irregularities, which attest to fraud efforts. When it comes to 87 percent voter turnout, this has been shown both by the ruling party and the opposition as a sign of democracy in Turkey. Yet, ever since the 80s, Turkey has always had high turnout during elections. In fact, participation in the elections has rarely been lower than 80 percent since the 80s. Actually, this can be seen as a sign of the lack of a strong civil society in Turkey, which is a key tenet of a democracy.
Until recently, what citizenship in political sense meant for Turks was limited to voting. In fact, Turks took voting very seriously because until recently, they saw elections as the only mechanism to have a say in the administration of the country. Yet, there are several other mechanisms, which are available for citizens to make an impact on the way the country is administered, be it at the macro or micro level.
However, especially after the 1980 military coup, ordinary citizens failed to set up and use these mechanism, remaining politically inactive between two elections. Turkey is a country where politics dominate everyday life. But while people talk about politics, they do not take active action.
Ironically, civil society has started to become mobilized and gain dynamism after the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) came to power and introduced reforms during the accession process to the European Union. Despite the introduction of reforms that expanded the limits of freedoms, being freedom of expression or freedom of association; membership to associations, foundations, and trade unions are extremely low compared to Western democracies.
The ruling party succeeded in mobilizing its supporters and in return, its supporters worked actively for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the AKP. That was not the case for the opposition.
On the other hand, the high turnout also attests to a dangerous polarization in Turkey. The supporters of the ruling party go to the ballot box as if it is a life or death matter, whereas opposition supporters cast their votes with the same anxiety, fearing their loss could be detrimental. This is not a sign of a healthy society.
The supporters of the two sides live in their own clusters; interaction between the two is low.
Supporters of the main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) for instance could not understand why they have lost. In their eyes, defeat was only possible because of election fraud. Yet, thousands of CHP supporters mobilized to monitor the ballot boxes. And in fact, as such they represent one of the most important achievements for democracy to take deeper root in Turkey.
The opposition parties however, the CHP as well as the Good (İYİ) Party, failed the democracy test on the night of the election. The mechanism they established to cross-check the results, called the “Fair Election Platform,” did not work. Instead of revealing this truth, they preferred to remain silent to hide their inefficiency. If four opposition parties that came together could not set up a functioning monitoring mechanism, how could they be trusted to efficiently run the country?
In addition, by remaining silent, they fueled speculations about vote rigging. Thousands of election monitors who had worked at the polling stations for more than 15 hours were left in the dark and felt abandoned. Those who did not want to accept this reality pinned their “hopes” to fraud.
While the CHP candidate Muharrem İnce apologized for his performance on the night of the election, İYİ Party leader Meral Akşener’s statements were far from satisfactory. The opposition parties have to find who is responsible for the failure of the “Fair Election Platform” and hold them accountable.
So far, the opposition parties have not shown convincing signs that they will undertake an objective exercise of analyzing their performance and take the necessary measures. As such, they continue to remain the weak ring in the Turkish democracy. Those nonpolitical actors who worked during the election are the ones who have provided hope if they are to continue on the path of active citizenship.